On paper, Penn State should have this game in the bag. The Nittany Lions are 8-3 with wins in four of their last five games and just need one more victory to line up a New Year’s Six bowl berth. Meanwhile, Maryland is 5-6 and coming off three straight defeats. It makes sense, from a certain perspective, for Penn State to be favored by two touchdowns.
On the other hand, Penn State isn’t playing as well as its record suggests. The passing game appears broken with Trace McSorley failing to complete 50 percent of his throws in three of the last four games. Even against a Rutgers team that was eager to give Penn State the ball deep in opposing territory, the Lions managed just 20 points.
The Terrapins might have just two wins since September ended, but they looked electric on offense last weekend in their bid to upset Ohio State. If they can replicate that performance against Penn State’s defense, the Lions might not have the firepower they need to keep up. For more on the suddenly surging Maryland program, we reached out to DJ Carver from SB Nation’s Big Ten blog, Off Tackle Empire. Thanks to DJ for helping us out with our game coverage!
Black Shoe Diaries: Before the Indiana game on November 10, Anthony McFarland had just two games with more than 10 carries. However, in Maryland’s last two games, the freshman tailback has exploded for 508 yards on 50 carries. What’s caused the uptick in usage, and what has made him such an effective weapon?
Off Tackle Empire: Prior to the Indiana game, Ty Johnson was the primary ball carrier, but that’s also a loose term. Maryland employs four different running backs that all have very good effectiveness throughout a game, but McFarland has absorbed Johnson’s carries as his own and has also taken some of Tayon Fleet-Davis’s carries too.
What’s made him an effective weapon? It’s always been there, but he’s getting more opportunity. Johnson is very good, and it made it a dual backfield to compete for the lead back number of carries. McFarland has insane acceleration to top speed, so once he gets around a corner and gets one-on-one with the secondary, he is usually lights out. McFarland topped out at 21.56 mph on his first touchdown run against Ohio State. For comparison, that’s good for the second fastest time recorded in the NFL this season.
BSD: Ever since Kasim Hill went down with a knee injury against Indiana, Tyrell Pigrome has been effective at pushing the ball down the field. Does the offense run better with Pigrome at the helm? How does his performance down the stretch affect the quarterback situation for next season?
OTE: I would say yes, it has run much better. Many fans have been screaming all season for Pigrome to get a shot, as Kasim Hill has not looked comfortable in his first season back from tearing his ACL in game three last year. He looked to be in his own head at times with some of the bone-headed throws that were made. Pigrome has given Maryland a passing game that teams at least need to think about (I mean, really, Iowa and Michigan State just stacked nine in the box and dared Hill to complete a pass), which has led to more open lanes and spreading the opposing team out some.
I would say it doesn’t effect next season because Hill just tore his ACL. Pigrome is now the man for the rest of the year and next so it will be interesting to see if he can stay healthy and grasp whomever the next offensive coordinator’s offense is.
BSD: As a run-heavy team, Maryland doesn’t keep its wide receivers too busy, but freshman Dontay Demus has emerged as a big-play threat lately. Is he someone who is looking at a much larger workload in the future?
OTE: Demus, standing tall at 6’4”, is a huge target for Pigrome down the field and is showing off his ability as a deep threat too. Demus has earned more snaps as his true freshman season has went on, and in general it appears all of the true freshmen wide receivers have overtaken the redshirt freshmen wide receivers on the depth chart. Jeshaun Jones is an all-around threat both off of jet sweeps and in the air, while Darryl Jones, another true freshman, has been involving himself too.
BSD: The Maryland offense has looked incredible over the past two games. Does this give Matt Canada a better chance at securing the full-time head coach job? How does the Maryland fan base feel about the job he has done during a tumultuous season?
OTE: I think Matt Canada has done a hell of a job this season with the hand he was dealt. I’m not sure there is any possible way someone could have handled the situation any better than he did. That being said, I’m not sure he’s secured himself the head coaching job next year. There has been a noticeable drop-off from his normal production now that he is on the field with head coach duties as opposed to up in the box, he admits as much, but there is a bigger question about how he handles things like recruiting. Canada isn’t known as a big recruiter and many DMV people are clamoring for homegrown talent Mike Locksley, passed over in 2016 for Durkin, to get the head coaching job. Locksley would mend the relationship with local high schools, but that would also chase Canada out. Personally, I’m not sold on Locksley with his head coaching track record, but I can see what people are going with. I think Canada could do well here with the right people around him and if Maryland decided to take the interim tag off I don’t think it’s the end of the world. It certainly would allow for the core of this team to stay intact, and I think the only way you do that is with Canada, Locksley, or someone like offensive coordinator Chris Beatty. That certainly isn’t the top goal but it’s something that is also in consideration when taking the entire situation into account.
BSD: As good as Maryland’s offense has looked, the defense hasn’t gotten the job done lately. That’s not great, especially considering that most of the unit’s production comes from upperclassmen like star linebacker Tre Watson. Are there any younger players on the defense showing promise? How does the unit figure to grow in the future?
OTE: A lot of the problem on defense, in my opinion, is forcing a scheme onto a set of personnel that doesn’t match it. DJ Durkin was running a base 4-2-5 with many dime looks as well (3-2-6). Maryland does not have the defensive lie or linebackers really to pull this scheme off, as well as it worked for Durkin at Florida and Michigan. Maryland has young defensive line talent that should make a huge impact next season, as well as the linebacker talent if it were on the field, but that all remains to be seen.
For reference on why I think it’s poor scheme: Maryland opened up against Iowa in a 3-2-6 when there were 30 mph winds blowing. They then proceeded to continue with that scheme with some 4-2-5 mixed in while Iowa ran all over them. The defensive philosophy doesn’t match up well with the offenses Maryland faces in the Big Ten.
BSD: Freshman kicker Joseph Petrino is 11-for-12 on field goals this season, but he’s only attempted one kick from beyond 40 yards. Does he have the range to make a difference from outside the 25-yard line?
OTE: Yes, he does. Petrino has the leg to make a difference and be consistent from 45 or so inwards and has much longer range if you believe warm-ups and highlight videos. Petrino hasn’t had much work this season because Maryland is scoring on long plays or otherwise sputtering inside the red zone. The offense relies on big plays and is very much boom-or-bust, which doesn’t really lend itself well to kicker stats.
BSD: The Terrapins are two-touchdown underdogs on Saturday. How do you see the game going for Maryland?
OTE: It’s going one of two ways. Maryland is coming out fired up like they did last week and Canada is going balls-to-the-wall play calling, holding nothing back, or Maryland will come out deflated after the heart-breaking loss and get stomped like last year. I just can’t see an in-between. If Penn State plays disciplined defense, then they will beat Maryland. If Penn State is loose on defense and is not sticking to its assigned gaps, well, watch the first quarter of the OSU game or really the entire Illinois game to see how that turns out. Matt Canada’s offense relies on creating mismatches on defense and getting opponents out of alignment. Maryland killed OSU on McFarland’s first two runs in the first quarter Saturday by taking OSU’s aggressiveness to its advantage while also using shifts to manipulate the secondary. The end result? It put McFarland one-on-one with a safety, who lost contain when he underestimated McFarland’s acceleration around the corner. This was on display much of the game as well. Iowa and MSU showed a good blueprint for beating Maryland: play disciplined, sound gap defense and you win. Don’t do it and you look foolish.
My prediction? Not feeling good about it and Franklin likes to try to run the score up always, especially with a New Year’s Six bowl still in play for PSU. PSU 45, MD 24. This could also be MD 38, PSU 17. Maryland is so unpredictable this year with everything going on that you just do not know what you’re going to get.
Thanks again to DJ for taking the time to answer our questions. For more on Maryland and Big Ten sports all year round, be sure to check out Off Tackle Empire!